|Agricultural water quality and government regulation
August 3, 2010: ODA Director Katy Coba speaks to the Association of American Plant Food Control Officials (AAPFCO). Director Coba's remarks centered on an overview of Oregon agriculture, its involvement in water quality protection, and the role of government in regulating the industry. The remarks were delivered during a dinner cruise on the Willamette River.
(AAPFCO is an organization of fertilizer control officials from each state in the United States, from Canada and from Puerto Rico who are actively engaged in the administration of fertilizer laws and regulations; and, research workers employed by these governments who are engaged in any investigation concerning mixed fertilizers, fertilizer materials, their effect, and/or their component parts.)
I want to give you an overview of Oregon agriculture, since so many of you are visiting for the first time. If there is one word I use to describe agriculture in Oregon, it's diversity. We grow over 225 different crops or animals. We are just as diverse as California or Florida. We just aren't as big. So to compete with those states, we have to be extra special, and we think we are.
Top commodities- greenhouse and nursery products is the number one sector in Oregon. Top ten are made up of products like hay, cattle and calves, wheat, onions, potatoes, grass seed, Christmas trees. Oregon is the number one producer of cool season grasses - many varieties- potted florist azaleas, Christmas trees, Dungeness crab. Again, there's an incredible diversity here in Oregon.
We are traveling on the Willamette River. The Willamette River starts in the south end of this valley about 200 miles away. It flows north up the valley and joins the Columbia River just north of here, which heads out to the ocean. The farmland surrounding this area is some of the most productive farmland in the whole United States. It's amazing ground and we really treasure this part of the Willamette Valley in terms of production.
We are equally diverse in terms of climate. In Eastern Oregon, where I'm from, it's wheat and cattle country. My hometown of Pendleton in Umatilla County is the number one producer of wheat in the State of Oregon- soft white wheat that we export into overseas markets.
We grow cranberries on the south coast, potatoes and onions in the Klamath Basin, hay in the Klamath Basin and Eastern Oregon. So just about anything you want, you can get here with the exception of bananas, oranges, lemons, limes- those kinds of things. We just aren't that warm.
In terms of where our products go, we are incredibly dependent on exports. Eighty percent of what we produce leaves our state's borders. Half of that moves into an international market. So the Port of Portland, which some of you may have seen when you came, it's the number one wheat exporting port in the United States. A lot of soybeans are now moving from the Midwest are being exported out of the Port of Portland. Potash from Canada comes down the Columbia River system. Our port system and transportation system are absolutely critical for us to get product to market.
I think it's a little ironic that we are on water tonight because I know, as many of you are dealing with, we in Oregon are dealing with water issues, particularly water quality. We are very involved in work that's going on with our Department of Environmental Quality, developing toxic standards for water in Oregon. It's a controversial issue, to say the least. It has been focused primarily on point source emitters- municipalities and industrial operations. As you are probably experiencing in your states, non-point source has now been pulled into the mix. There's a lot of concern about the fact that point sources are spending a lot of money trying to clean up their act and claim or point fingers at non-point sources and saying, what are you doing to do your share?
It's a big concern for our producers in Oregon. We in the Department of Agriculture are actively involved in that process. It certainly has implications for the rest of the United States.
Oregon is a leader right now in looking at fish consumption standards. You may wonder why do we care about fish consumption standards. It's for this reason. The current standard, I believe, is about 12 to 17 grams (of fish consumption per person) per day. In a recent study that was done, the Environmental Quality Commission in Oregon is now increasing that standard to 175 grams per day- increasing it ten fold. They've done this by looking at an analysis of how much fish is actually consumed, particularly by tribal interests in Oregon. So they have significantly increased the fish consumption standard, which means they need to significantly reduce the toxics in our water that may end up in fish.
We are going through that process right now. It has implications for all the rest of you because EPA is watching what we are doing here in the State of Oregon, and looking at it as a potential to become a nationwide standard.
My prediction is that water quality issues are going to become even more of an issue for all of us than we have dealt with in the past.
The last thing I want to touch on is talking frankly to those of you in state agencies in other states. This is a personal issue for me that is very important, and I want to share it with you tonight. I grew up involved in politics. My father ran for the state senate when I was in fourth grade. He was inspired by the Kennedy's and was elected the first time he ran for office. He was a democrat from Eastern Oregon, which doesn't exist anymore in Oregon. So I grew up in this environment. I remember my parents getting calls at all times of the day and night. People were complaining and wanting them to fix it. At one point in time, I said to my parents, why do you do this? My mom's response back to me was, if good people don't get involved in public service, who will? I've had a career now in public service, working in state government for 25 years. I'm truly committed to public service. These days, you don't see too many people stand up and say that. But the work all of you do in public service is absolutely critical. If you weren't involved in doing the work you do, then who would be?
The second thing, that I think is particularly unique about departments of agriculture, we are one of two agencies in Oregon- the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries is the other agency- whose mission statements are to both promote and regulate the industry here in Oregon. A lot of people, as they say about USDA, will ask how can government folks do that? Isn't there a conflict of interest there? Doesn't that mean you aren't going to truly regulate the industry the way it should be regulated? I always like to turn that statement around and say the way we operate in the Oregon Department of Agriculture is the way I believe citizens want their government to run. When we are working with an industry, when we are regulating an industry, we go out and work with them, we identify what's going well, we identify where there are potential problems or real problems. Instead of saying you have a problem and you need to go fix it, we'll be back in two weeks to see if you have fixed it- we don't do it that way. We say, you have a potential problem, and we need to work with you to get you the resources to help you figure out how to fix it. I think that's what the citizens want out of their government. I think that's what state departments of agriculture do. I think other state agencies need to operate more like the way we do.
I want to commend you for the work you do. I know when I get together with my counterparts, it's always a very stimulating time to share issues of concern, issues of commonality, challenges you are facing, learning how you are dealing with those. So I hope you are finding that in this conference- challenging yourself to understand what are the issues coming at you and how best you can be prepared to help our wonderful agriculture industry in the United States deal with those issues, survive, and feed the world.